Had Jerry Maguire been an investor instead of a fictional sports agent, he might have become famous for yelling, "Show me the cash flow!"

Earnings come and go, and the green-eyeshade types can legally manipulate it to mask a company's true operations. Yet its ability to generate cash -- what comes into the register and goes out the door -- remains the preeminent indicator of company's worth. In short, cash is king.

Below, we'll look at companies that have proven themselves prodigious generators of free cash flow (FCF) -- the amount of money a company has left over that it could pay to its investors. We'll find companies that have generated compounded free cash flow growth rates exceeding 25% annually over the past five years, then pair them with the opinions of the more than 140,000 members of the Motley Fool CAPS investor intelligence community to see which ones might have the best chance of outperforming the market.

Company

Levered FCF 5-Year CAGR, %

CAPS Rating (out of 5)

Akamai Technologies (NASDAQ:AKAM)

56.8%

****

Alpha Pro Tech (NYSE:APT)

159.3%

***

Amedisys (NASDAQ:AMED)

51.8%

**

Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK)

67.1%

*****

MasterCard (NYSE:MA)

46.2%

**

Source: Capital IQ (a division of Standard & Poor's); Motley Fool CAPS. CAGR = compounded annual growth rate.

Generating copious amounts of cash doesn't make a company an automatic buy. But having looked at Enron's cash flows instead of its earnings would have saved many investors a lot of grief. Warren Buffett understands that the value of a company today is calculated by its discounted future cash flows, so use this list as a jumping-off point to dig deeper into the piles of cash.

Ka-ching!
Draped across the market's knee and given a sound thrashing for having the temerity to miss analyst forecasts by a penny, network services provider Akamai Technologies has been working its way back into the good graces of investors. Perhaps the market's mavens realized they were a bit harsh. The second quarter wasn't Akamai's best, but cash and equivalents rose to $927 million while it was able to produce a record $105 million in free cash flow.

Content delivery faces growing pricing pressures. Limelight Networks (NASDAQ:LLNW) is being challenged for top-tier video and large file delivery by Level 3 Communications (NASDAQ:LVLT), but Akamai feels it too, since its churn rate rose to 5%, about one to two points above the level it was for most of last year.

A price war doesn't faze CAPS member Wsteh, who says Akamai will be bringing the equivalent of a gun -- a more stable financial footing -- to a knife fight:

competition will be good for AKAM...price war is good. If an all out war breaks between the US (Akamai) and North Korea (Limelight) who do you think will win. Yes there will be casualties on both sides but eventually the bigger guy with the bigger guns (balance sheet, moat, etc, ect) will win.

With Akamai having guided to similar slippage in top-line growth in the third quarter, investors may yet get the chance for better pricing from the industry leader if the market decides the performance is worth another spanking.

The check is in the mail
Record lows in natural gas prices put pressure on producers like Chesapeake Energy, but with stockpiles continuing to expand and industrial demand falling 14% through the first half of the year, there's little they can do but ride out this perfect storm of events.

Speaking of storms, if both the Farmers' Almanac and Old Farmers' Almanac are to be believed (and many do trust their uncannily accurate weather predictions), this coming winter will bring below-normal temperatures for three-quarters of the country with significant snowfalls expected.

That could be why CAPS All-Star socalguyCUI is expecting natural gas prices to eventually turn higher:

Love the natural gas play right now-price of natural gas should double by January. This company has a lot of cash and is one of the biggest players in the sector. Strong fundamentals and room to grow. I project the stock to climb to $40 by March 2010.

Follow the money
What's your view? While these stocks have left a trail of dollars, it pays to start your own research on Motley Fool CAPS. Read a company's financial reports, scrutinize key data and charts, and examine the comments your fellow investors have made -- all from a stock's CAPS page. Why not head over to the completely free CAPS service and let us hear what you've got to say about these or any other stocks that you think will continue to rake in the dough.

Akamai Technologies is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Chesapeake Energy is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Chesapeake Energy. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.